Spring comes little, a little. All April it rains.
The new leaves stick in their fists; new ferns still fiddleheads.
But one day the swifts are back. Face to the sun like a child
You shout, 'The swifts are back!'
Sure enough, bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther
Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields.
Swereee swereee. Another. And another.
It's the cut air falling in shrieks on our chimneys and roofs.
The next day, a fleet of high crosses cruises in ether.
These are the air pilgrims, pilots of air rivers.
But a shift of wing, and they're earth-skimmers, daggers
Skilful in guiding the throw of themselves away from themselves.
Quick flutter, a scimitar upsweep, out of danger of touch, for
Earth is forbidden to them, water's forbidden to them,
All air and fire, little owlish ascetics, they outfly storms,
They rush to the pillars of altitude, the thermal fountains.
Here is a legend of swifts, a parable —
When the Great Raven bent over earth to create the birds,
The swifts were ungrateful. They were small muddy things
Like shoes, with long legs and short wings,
So they took themselves off to the mountains to sulk.
And they stayed there. 'Well,' said the Raven, after years of this,
'I will give you the sky. You can have the whole sky
On condition that you give up rest.'
'Yes, yes,' screamed the swifts, 'We abhor rest.
We detest the filth of growth, the sweat of sleep,
Soft nests in the wet fields, slimehold of worms.
Let us be free, be air!'
So the Raven took their legs and bound them into their bodies.
He bent their wings like boomerangs, honed them like knives.
He streamlined their feathers and stripped them of velvet.
Then he released them, Never to Return
Inscribed on their feet and wings. And so
We have swifts, though in reality, not parables but
Bolts in the world's need: swift
Swifts, not in punishment, not in ecstasy, simply
Sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world's breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur,
And watch the miracle.
Anne Stevenson (b. 1933)
Born in Cambridge, England, Anne Stevenson moved between the United States and the United Kingdom numerous times during the first half of her life.
While she considers herself an American, Stevenson qualifies her status: “I belong to an America which no longer really exists.”
Since 1962 she has lived mainly in the U.K., including Cambridge, Scotland, Oxford, and, most recently, North Wales and Durham.
Intersections and borders are common emblems in Stevenson’s work, though the land on which they are drawn is often mutable or shrouded in mist.
She is as comfortable in strict form as she is in free verse, and her poetry, according to poet George Szirtes, is “humane, intelligent and sane, composed of both natural and rational elements, and amply furnished with patches of wit and fury.”
Initially a student of music, Stevenson earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Michigan, where she studied with Donald Hall, who encouraged her to pursue poetry.
Resistant to connections with any particular school of contemporary poetry, Stevenson has honed her art apart from many of her peers but within the larger conversation of the form.
As she says, “If I couldn’t overhear the rhythms and sounds established by the long, varied tradition of English poetry—say by Donne, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost—I would not be able to hear what I myself have to say. Poems that arise only from a shallow layer of adulterated, contemporary language are rootless. They taste to me like the mass-produced vegetables grown in chemicals for supermarkets.”
Stevenson slowly lost her hearing years ago, though her poetry continues to come first from sound.
In a 2007 essay, Stevenson wrote, “Although I rarely write in set forms now, poems still come to me as tunes in the head. Words fall into rhythms before they make sense. It often happens that I discover what a poem is about through a process of listening to what its rhythms are telling me.”
“Ever since I can remember, I have been aware of living at what E.M. Forster called ‘a slight angle’ to the universe,” she says.
“I have always had to create my own angular environment or perish. But that’s the whole point about borders. It’s the best place from which to be able to see both sides.”